Bill's conundrum

From a recent email exchange with Bill, a reader:

Hey Danny:

I have a real conundrum.
After a few years pursuing other dreams (but still keeping my artistic feet wet). I ramped back up my freelance illustration pursuits. With my website up and loaded with samples I began sending out my promotional material. It has been a year now and I have received only a few nibbles. That being said my portrait business has really picked up.

Here is my dilemma. To me. portraits have always felt like an artistic parlor trick. Sure I can render a portrait to look like your photo but why the heck do you want me to you already own the picture. I just feel like if I let the portrait business take over I will lose my illustration goals.

My problem is I owe it to my wife and son to make more money. I know it sounds odd but my illustrations make me feel like an artist and my portraits make me feel like a whore. What should I do?


Dear Bill:

I think your issue is less about practicality and more about how you define yourself. The reality is that there are illustrators who feel like whores because they are working for big corporations and making art that will be trashed at the end of the month and wish they could do work for people who would cherish and frame their art.

Not to be harsh, but I urge you to get over your self and focus instead on being as productive as you can. It doesn’t mater if you’re an artist or an illustrator or a hack or a genius. Just take it day-by-day, make art for those who want it and keep moving. While your drawing someone’s portrait, see if you can leverage the connection and make more business for yourself. Then think of who else you can send promotional stuff to.

And think about the promotion stuff you send out. Is it really special? Is it something an art director will just toss in a drawer? Are you giving them something that’s of value and memorable? And are you …

getting back to them to remind them who you are? Is your illustration outstanding in some way? Are you targeting the right people? You seem to work mainly in pen and ink. Have you targeted newspapers? Can you get a regular gig in a local paper? Does your website showcase your work as well as possible? Did you just put it up and figure it would have to do? Do your refresh it? It seems to me that it’s a little passive and asks the visitor to do the work with tiny thumbnails. It also keeps reminding me that your work is for sale. Woo me a little first before waving the’ for sale’ sign.

You are a creative guy. Apply that creativity to leveraging every possible aspect of what you do. Forget about your own label (artists, illustrator, diaper changer, whatever) and do all you can to make other people yearn to work with you. Maybe you should do cartoons, Christmas cards, a children’s book, and give them out free to prospects.

You have a lot going for you. Don’t limit it in any way. Embrace opportunities and keep making stuff.

Hope I haven’t kicked your ass too hard but I know you can do it. I look forward to hearing how it works out.

Your pal,

Thanks for your thoughts. I appreciate the kick in the ass…. As for my portraits, I guess I treat myself harshly in this area. My first paid illustration was a portrait and they come kinda easy to me. They just never seemed valid from a personal artistic standpoint. My portraits are oil painted or pencil and my illustrations are pen and ink. For some reason I have always felt more valid doing the pen and ink work. It’s a strange battle that I have been dealing with since high school (I am 38 now). I guess I get hung up on the fact that most people have preconceived notions of what a portrait should be. If people were willing to accept a more creative portrait like the ones you have been doing I would feel more fulfilled. I have been watching how after you went through your creative rough patch this summer you came back with both guns blazing. If I could somehow marry my two styles to a point where both of my needs were met I would feel better. …


Dear Bill:

Portraits are endlessly fascinating. These days I am looking at lots of them and drawing inspiration from : David Hockney, Andy Warhol, Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon. Vincent van Gogh…

I think they refute your idea that portraits are not artistically valid or that there’s any preconceived idea of what a portrait should be. If you shake your own preconception, you will grow as an artist and as a success.

And forget trying to marry styles. Try something a lot less conscious and experiment with new media and approaches. It will put fresh excitement into your work that potential customers will respond to. Or else fuck ‘em.


Fear is not very useful.

Hey Danny,
I have loved your stuff since finding your site. I need some counsel from a fellow habitual doodler. Ever since I was a kid I wanted to do stuff with art. I even got my bachelors in fine art education, thinking I would teach. But, fearing financial failure with a new family, I went into another field, and find myself making a good living, but longing to eliminate the “what if” from my lists of regrets. Some days I wish I could just be forced to go deep into the creative side again, but I fear failure.
Any counsel and suggestions?

Dear Witness:
Fear is not very useful. Instead, I urge you to just start doing whatever it is you are interested in being involved with. Don’t concentrate on the $$$ aspect of things. Start making, then start sharing.
Get involved with the arts community in your area if you want to show in galleries. Contact magazines and papers if you want to illustrate. Just take the leap and avoid wrapping the whole thing up with your identity and sense of self worth.
Be as positive and outgoing and productive as possible. And consider the expansion of your creativity to be a creative effort in and of itself. Be creative in how you make art, in who you show it to, in how you support yourself emotionally as you head in this new direction.
If you approach it this way, it is impossible to fail, for even if you don’t accomplish what you initially thought you’d achieve, you will have a fine adventure, learn new things and, worse case scenario, get that creative urge out of your system once and for all.
Have fun, be brave, get going,
Your pal,

Street Folks

People walking down the street are one of the more challenging subjects for me draw. They are always changing shape and size or just disappearing before I can study them long enough to get down on paper. As I’d rather not end up with every single one of my cityscapes looking like someone just dropped a neutron bomb and depopulated the place, I try to practice a technique for capturing people in motion. It has to be atechnique rather than an actual observation, of course, and so I have to work out shorthand and special practices to get the job done.

When I draw a person, say, waiting for the light to change and standing still for a moment, I can usually capture about half of their pose. Then I watch another person in a similar position and finish up a composite of both of them in one figure. I figured this approach out at the zoo in Milwaukee ( sorry, the the Como and Minnesota Zoos in Minneapolis!) a couple of years ago, when drawing animals with my pal Roz. Many animals would assume three or four different positions but then go back and forth between them so I just did several drawings simultaneously on the page, moving back and forth between the poses.
I did these particular drawings one evening while waiting for Patti to meet me on the street corner. It was fairly hectic and there was a lot of coming and going so I found it quite hard to really lock into to the exercise. I imagine that if I had the patience to take more life drawing classes and concentrated on short poses, I’d be well served.
I learned quite a lot drawing stuffed animal specimens at home and at various natural history museums. Maybe I should visit Madam Tusaud’s. It’s just so hard to find decent human taxidermy.

How to draw

To learn just about any task, we start by breaking it into its smallest component parts. That’s how a computer works, breaking every operation into millions of unambiguous instructions which are then executed sequentially at the speed of light. Cooking a complex French dish becomes possible, even easy, if you have a clear recipe which breaks the preparation down into a long series of clear parts. Even playing a Beethoven symphony is technically a matter of reading the notes from overture to finale.
Drawing works the same way.
Most anything you’d want to draw is made up of straight lines and curves. You can almost certainly draw a short, reasonably straight line. And with a little care you can probably draw an arc or a fairly round circle. Improving your ability to do either of these things is primarily a function of how slowly you you do them. And practice will make you better.
But you’re probably no more interested in drawing lines and arcs than you are in learning to boil water or to play a single note on the piano. It’s assembling the individual components that makes the idea of drawing satisfying and challenging. But that’s all it is, a challenge, not an impossibility, no matter who you are.
Drawing is about observation, about dismantling whatever you are looking at into the lines and curves that make it up. So let’s start with somethings simple, say a pencil or a coffee mug. Examine it for a minute or two. Let your eye follow the outer edges of the object and really think about what you are seeing. Ask yourself questions. How long is a particular stretch of edge? What happens when it encounters another edge? What sort of angle do lines make when they meet? Are the lines on one side parallel to those on the other? Keep scrutinizing and studying, like a detective grilling the subject so you can get at the truth. The truth is right in front of you and yet it is elusive. Why? You are not used to seeing clearly because you are bogged down with preconceptions. You want to overcome those preconceptions about what a pencil looks like by forgetting that it is a pencil. Instead you want to see it just as as line and curves and angles.
If you are having trouble, stop looking at the object from two perspectives at once, with your right eye and your left. Close one eye and now you will be committed to a single perspective. Just as your pen does on paper, you will now be dealing only with a 2-D world. Drawing that pencil is just a matter or recording your observations on paper, copying the length of one line, then adding on the curve, noting down an angle. Try it. Run your eye down the edge, then run your pen down the paper. Slowly, slowly. Then connect the next edge, checking your angle. The slower you go, the more you’ll know. Work your way around the whole object, checking parallel lines, seeing where things meet up. It’s just like measuring a window for drapes or flour for cookies. Slowly, slowly. Measure twice, cut once, as the carpenters say.
If you screwed up somewhere, just correct yourself. Don’t erase or freak out, just redraw the lines, training your brain, your eye, your hand.
Take a break, pat yourself on the back.
Soon, do it again. And again. Then when you’re ready, add another object and draw them together, thinking about the relationship between the two. Lay your pencil near your mug. Look at the shapes that are defined by their edges. Think about the negative space they form (that’s the chunk of table that lies between them). Get into the habit of looking for negative space. Look at a tree’s branches. The sky you see between the branches is negative space. So is the carpet or wall you see between chair legs. Observe it. Draw it.
Devote half an hour a day to this sort of observation and recording and, within a week, you will begin to amaze yourself.
The next step is just to add more complexity. Find more complicated objects or scenes to draw. Set up a still life of common objects. get intricate. Draw the seeds on top of a bagel or the hairs on your dog’s face. Sure there are a lot of them but tackle them one by one. Draw a detail then move over to the next one and record it. Keep going and then step back and see the forest after drawing the trees (A word of caution: challenge yourself but don’t raise the bar so high that you start to feel like a failure).
Once you are rolling, make drawing an everyday thing. Record the world around you. Draw your breakfast, your cat, your spouse’s shoes, your child’s toys. Join our Yahoo! group and try out some of Karen Winter’s challenges.
Your inner critic may well balk at all this. First off, how could it be that easy? Well, it is. Now that you know the elements (careful observation, recording lines, angles and curves) and are willing to practice them for a little while, you will soon be able to draw anything on earth. Sure, it will take more time to make and record accurate observations quickly but it’s not beyond reach. I’m not a bird describing to you how to fly; you have all the necessary equipment and abilities already. You simply need to focus, slow down, and persevere. The biggest step is shedding the preconception that you can’t do it.
Second objection: is it art? I have no idea. At first, it will be hard to put a lot of style or expression in your drawing but, trust me, every line you draw, right from the get go, is pureyou. Soon you will have enough control to lead your work in any direction you choose. Think of this as a golf lesson. I am teaching you to hit the ball. It’s up to you to keep working and lower your score. You probably won’t wind up being Tiger Woods … but so what? You’ll still have loads of fun.
Want to know more? Read a good book.

Nice email

I am a 43 year-old Special Ed. teacher in IN. I have always been an art fanatic and took many lessons way back in my teen years. Since then I have just “dabbled”. I had to take a “leave” from my job in Feb. and have researching altered books/artists sketchbooks/drawing and came upon your book. It is

incredible. I am reading and rereading it every day! I love everything about it! I have borrowed it from the library and will buy at least one copy as soon as I can afford it. I HAVE to have it! I have always wanted to be an artist and during the past few months have done more art than I ever imagined I could. It is wonderfully theraputic and cathartic! You have truely inspired me beyond words. Your book is my “bible”. Since you started in your 30′s I am hoping that it is not too late for me since I am in my 40′s. I want to draw, write and make stuff 24 hours a day (I sleep very little). I just wanted you to know what a wonderful thing you have done in sharing your journey with all of us “aspiring artists”. Please keep it coming, I just can’t get enough and now I’ve found your website and love to see the work from so many talented people. Thanks for all that you have done for me, my life has been changed forever.
With warmest regards,

I do it 'cause it's trendy.

Recently, I was asked why I thought journaling, and Internet journaling in particular, has become such a phenomenon. I rattled off a bunch of bullet points but I’ve continued to think about my answer and thought I’d share my thoughts with you to see if you want to refute or amplify my hypotheses.
First, there’re the tools at hand. The Internet and blogging let us share our personal work with like-minded people more easily. In the past, one might keep a diary that some descendant could unearth in the attic after we’ve passed, but the practice was basically solipsistic. In the new millennium, while our stories and drawings may not find an audience in our homes or communities, the Web lets us find interested readers from Belgium to Brisbane. The fact that someone else is interested helps to keep us going.
But technology also helps to create the need. I think that all this technology and titanium has made handmade things much more appealing. Even if it ends up as a jpeg, putting ink, graphite, and good old watercolors down on paper is a warm and pleasant break from email and cel phoning.
The next factor is our zeitgeist. We live in the age of memoir and confession. Anything goes and everyone’s an audience. Reality TV, James Frey, Augusten Burroughs, Oprah, Bill Clinton, everyone is sharing their story whether anyone asked or not. You don’t need to be a celebrity or a world leader to be worth listening to any more; now, if you get a publishing contract your personal life is, well, an open book. It follows that we all have a heightened need for self-analysis and -exposure.
Our culture has also become increasingly about individual achievement: the star athlete, the maverick CEO, the non-aligned President, etc. Despite a brief window of collective focus after 9/11, ‘s not about community any more; instead ‘s about self-absorption.
Most if us have the leisure time for journaling. Oh sure there’re a zillion diversions and distractions but if we want to make the time, we can have it. Turn off the tube, the Crackberry, the RSS feed, and do a bit of self-analysis.
And more and more of us have that need because of a growing sense of our own mortality. Baby boomers are the largest group in the population and we are in mid-life. Beginning to sum up, to think about what we’ve learned from life, and interested in sharing what we find.
Another aspect of modern life is reflected in the last essay I wrote here, about the effects of globalization on our environment. The more homogeneity there is, the more we seek quirk and particularity in others and ourselves. If everyone’s wearing clothes from the same stores and eating food from the same restaurants, we have all the more need to make our own mark, to stand out from the crowd.
While the world imposes consistency on us through megabranding, it is also providing us with a lot of tumult and anxiety. We are looking for answers and perspective and sitting down with a blank piece of paper and a pen is a great way to start looking.
It also seems that organized religion hasn’t managed to give us a strong enough sense of meaning in the modern world. I don’t feel that the Pope or the mullahs or the Christian Right are providing any answers I can relate to; instead it seems ‘s up to me to get to the bottom of things and chart a path for passing through these troubled waters. Again, slowing down and meditating on the moment with a pen in my hand brings me peace and balance.
Why have you started journaling? And what role does drawing play in it?

Advertising and Its Discontents – Part II: Charity


I like nice. I like sweet. But even more I like raw. I like real. And Ilove Charity Larrison. She and I have been corresponding for a couple of years ago and she always cracks me up and take my breath away with her honesty. Charity’s story is pretty different from Trevor’s and it is far from resolved. I won’t say much more in the way of introduction but to say, Charity is the real thing. We can all learn a lot from her bravery, creativity and independence.

The Fundamental Distraction by Charity Larrison

At 18, the idea of going to art school, being a real artist, whatever, you know – seemed basically useless. My family was poor – college was not even an option really. And college for something as abstract as “being an artist” – ha ha. I might as well not even think about it.
I remember spending my whole senior year of high school in a corner of the art room working on paintings - buying extra time here and there doing the whole fluttery-eyelashes thing, “Oh come on, *please* Mister Whatever Stupid Teacher - I finished the assignment in five minutes! Can't I *please* go down to Miss McKannicks' for the rest of the period?? - i'm working on A GREAT PAINTING!”
So like any good comic book loving skateboard punk rocker with no way out of small town America hell – I joined the army.

I remember when I was in basic training my drill sergeant secretly pulling me over to the side and saying: “ONUSKA, take these markers and these flags up to the latrine and draw E-328 Predator faces on them so I can give them as prizes at the end to the other drill's. If you get caught you're in trouble, so don't get caught!”
And then there was the Sunday afternoon when I was in advanced training, learning my 68G10 - Aircraft Structure Repair crap; I was walking through the platoon area on my way to the smoking table when I was accosted by my Drill Sergeant to report for detail to the enlisted club, where I ended up spending the rest of the summer assisting his wife painting a mural of a bunch of Blackhawk helicopters landing on the wall in front of the dance floor.
She yelled at me one day: “YOU DON’T BELONG HERE!” Then it was a few really a lot louder sentences in Korean that I am still glad that I couldn't understand & I remember shrugging my shoulders at her and saying: Don't worry, Sun, I have it all worked out.

I got married. We had fun for a while. I got pregnant. He got kicked out of the service. I decided to opt out and follow him home. Our marriage didn’t survive the strain. I packed my baby and what belongings I could fit into his gold Fiero (dear god) and never looked back. I was twenty. Worked and worked and worked. Lots of crap jobs. Night shifts at the convenience store. Short order cook. Bank teller.
I remember it is two am and I am standing under fluorescent lights in an all night convenience store slicing endless little piles of lunch meat, passing the time wondering who it was that got to have the job where you made all the dumb signs. I would be good at that job.
I remember hanging out at my teller station when I worked at the bank, copying pictures out of comic books every moment of time where there were not incredibly crabby people in front of my face blaming me for all their money problems.
I remember lucking into a seasonal civil service gig with Pennsylvania state parks. Where I got to take care of the computers. Burning another boring afternoon clerking it in the office, doodling on post-its when Kevin, the Assistant Boss Park Ranger dropped a stack of instructions in front of me and said: “Larrison: if you can figure out how to network all our computers and make it work, you can have the internet. (THE INTERNET!!!! FINALLY!!!)

I decided I needed to cave in and try to go to college. To get out and get something better. Thinking to maybe get some kind of IT certificate, as I was so swell at computers and all. Looked it up on the Internet. Looked halfheartedly at stuff, then saw it. The graphic design program. You know: the “oh, that’s what i’m supposed to be doing” moment. (omg – like art school! But like – you could actually GET A JOB) (try not to cry laughing at me :D) anyway – once i saw it, it was too late. I had to do it. So i did. It was insanity. I worked five million jobs and went to school and somehow held everything together with just, pure will. (because seriously, this was the stupidest gamble of all time WHAT ARE YOU THINKING etc.)
See – I loved graphic design. I loved it more than anything in the whole universe. There was nothing like it to me. I knew how to make the pages talk. Then i learned how to make the pages sing. I made pretend magazines and taught myself how to make web pages, and I demanded that i get a REAL internship at a REAL place. Because even though i was just some jackass with an Associates’ degree from a tech school – that didn’t make me not THE BEST. (quit laughing :D)

Anyway, i got my internship. They hired me right out of school. Their art director moved to Atlanta, and I got his job. I was never, ever, ever, so miserable in my entire life than how miserable i was for those six months. I remember my favorite part of the day was whenever I could go down and sit in the restroom just so that I could spend five or ten minutes not having to be in the same room with those people. I mean, holy shit – these guys were some serious assholes. I was so depressed. I mean this? This is what graphic design is for? Lying? And lying and lying forever? GAH. And I’d spent so much of myself learning and it felt like, all for nothing.
I lasted about six months till they fired my ass. I remember dancing up the street Fred Astaire style the afternoon they fired me. Sure it sucked and I was doomed, but lunchmeat at two am was better than that crap.
Not to be thwarted, once i finished celebrating being fired from the ninth circle of hell, I threw my resume up on and got a call. Some company needed someone who could use Photoshop. Okay. I can do that. Went. Interviewed. They ended up hiring me on the spot. Was a small engineering company. Tired of getting raked over the coals from the ad agency that was doing all their stuff previously, they wanted just someone who could use Photoshop to fix some images for them.
I was all like, well, you know, i can do everything those bastards were doing for you, except better, and cheaper. So they hired me and gave me a million raises and built me a giant office and bought me every toy I asked for. It was fantastic for about a year. I made everything for them from out of nothing. I was like a great hero, rescuing my company from the tyranny of the great evil of advertising agencies.
I suppose you see what’s coming by now. I mean, there’s only so much you can do. After a while my job started to consist of just updating and tweaking and pressing buttons. I joke that it is my George Jetson job. I just rush in push a button then put my feet up on the desk. Which everyone says is so great. Which I suppose it is, but what happens if you are crazy and actually LIKE to work, but have no work to do? It sucks. But you can’t leave your great job when you are the sole support of your tiny family. You gotta just suck it up and go to work.
So, I sit in my giant office in the middle of nowhere America and spend my days floating around the great now of the Internet. I don’t know that I had a plan really when I started out. I mean, I just did the things I already liked to do. I followed comics websites and comics artists and followed their advice about how to learn how to draw, and i just kept trying to learn how to draw. Because that’s what I wanted more than anything. To learn how to draw for real. So i could draw comic books. For real. So i just kept drawing. I made myself websites to put my drawings on, cause that kind of made it feel like an activity. I made horrible comic books. I made friends and enemies.
I have some friends who are writers, they asked me to draw their stories, so I did. Because I love them, and I love that they write stories, and I love making words into pictures, and the challenge of making the pages read and flow. Figuring out just the right thing to draw to make the story move the best way. It’s the funnest game ever. It makes me work hard. I could do it till the end of the universe.
And slowly I started to learn how to learn.
It’s funny about learning. It’s never what you expect. I am starting for the first time ever, to actually get the hang of it, and make some things that are kind of cool and that i really love. I am starting to learn how to see the world, and my heart is constantly in like this odd vice of joy. I want to draw everything all of the time. But time is precious – which things to spend the time on? I want to draw that tree – but really shouldn’t I be working on something serious? I mean, that is the kind of thing I have been thinking to myself lately.
See – honestly, I hate my job. It’s awful. I am all by myself all the time. There is no one to talk to ever, except the dumb internet, and I want out. Having basically one client only for the past four years, my portfolio is utter crap. And, Jesus, I don’t want to be a graphic designer anymore anyway. I want to draw. But how do you make a living from drawing? How do you make a living from drawing without starting to hate drawing, is the main thing i think. I have been trying to figure it out. Trying to figure out what way to push so that I can still love it, and still get out of here.
So I have been trying to remember why I started this. Why I am here. What did I want when I began? To maybe find some kind of clue that will help me figure out what to do. What is important? Why do i do all these things that I don’t actually care about anymore when I would really rather be out drawing trees?

These days I just wake up every day and do what I have to do to buy the extra time down miss mckannicks' to work on the paintings. And think it is pretty awesome that I get to stay here this time and don't have to go to the Army again, because that sucked.